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5 Ways Pet Therapy Can Be Helpful

Reducing anxiety and stress, building self-esteem, and providing companionship are among the benefits of animal and pet therapy.

Puppies roam the libraries of colleges and universities to help students relax while studying for exams. Emotional support animals, including ducks and miniature horses, comfort anxious flight passengers. Children read aloud to dogs at local libraries to build their reading skills in the presence of a nonjudgmental audience. Individuals with autism, Down syndrome, or other health conditions may find health and sensory benefits from therapeutic horseback riding. What do all of these activities have in common? They all demonstrate pet therapy in action.

While humans have embraced animal companions for centuries, the therapeutic benefits of pets have only recently become more widely acknowledged. What is pet therapy? According to the Mayo Clinic, pet therapy can be divided into two overarching categories: animal-assisted therapy and other animal-assisted activities. Defined loosely, animal-assisted therapy uses a more structured, organized approach and is usually prescribed or arranged to treat a specific physical or mental health ailment, condition, or problem.1 Animal-assisted therapies follow individualized plans for a patient, striving to meet specific therapeutic goals and benchmarks.2

Meanwhile, animal-assisted activities tend to be unstructured “animal-associated motivational, recreational, educational, or therapeutic activities that are conducted by volunteers to enhance quality of life.”2 Typically, volunteers deliver animal-assisted activities by bringing animals to visit patients and residents in hospitals, nursing homes, and other care facilities.

Whether derived from more formal animal-assisted therapy or less rigid animal-assisted activities, pet therapy benefits people of all ages. Pet therapy can be helpful to people in the following five ways:

1. Reduces stress and anxiety

Among the most notable of all of the benefits of pet therapy is its ability to decrease stress and anxiety. Engaging with pets and therapy animals offers comforting physical interaction and touch. These animals give comfort and companionship without judgment, helping folks with everyday stresses as well as those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, loneliness, addiction, or other mental health conditions.3 From a biological standpoint, studies show that animal interaction reduces blood pressure and helps release endorphins,4 oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine.5

2. Builds self-esteem

Pet therapy also helps build people’s self-esteem. When a person takes care of a pet, he or she is responsible for feeding, nurturing, and sheltering it, creating responsibility. Owning a dog, for example, creates the need to go for walks, giving both the owner and pet exercise. A child participating in therapeutic horseback riding might learn about caring for horses while also learning new riding skills. Succeeding with these responsibilities builds self-worth, which can buoy a person’s confidence in other aspects of his or her life.5

3. Provides companionship

In addition to building self-confidence, pet therapy provides companionship, whether in the form of pet ownership or partaking in animal-assisted therapies or activities. When walking, talking to, or petting an animal, bonding occurs. Animals can sense people’s thoughts and feelings while providing unconditional love and support.3 The friendship between people and animals develops over increased exposure to each other through therapy visits, walks, trips to dog parks, or other interactions.

4. Improves physical health

While pet therapy reduces blood pressure, enables the body to release endorphins, and improves stress and anxiety levels, it also can also contribute to physical health in other ways. Studies show that pet ownership increases the survival rate of patients with heart conditions. Furthermore, the American Heart Association recommends pet ownership as a way to prevent or reduce the severity of cardiovascular disease. Animal-assisted therapy and activities have also been linked to reports of reduced pain for postoperative and fibromyalgia patients.2 Pet therapy also encourages exercise among participants, contributing to healthier and more active lives.

5. Offers a novel approach

Including pet therapy as part of an overall health treatment plan can provide unique relief to people living with a range of physical and mental health conditions. Medicine can lower blood pressure, decrease the likelihood of a cardiac event, and reduce symptoms of anxiety, but it cannot offer companionship or the physical contact pet therapy can provide. Incorporating animal-assisted therapies and activities can make a wide-ranging impact on human lives, boosting confidence, creating purpose, and providing greater enjoyment in daily living.

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